Back from the dead
Humans have always been the underdog. We're comparatively rubbish at three of life's key skills at least - swimming, running, and looking after ourselves at birth. At some point we invented fire and grew a bit cocky. We forgot about the simple things in life and started to rely way too heavily on other people and their timesaving inventions.
Ultra running is a bit like getting back to nature. Forgetting about all of life's mod cons and reverting to your will to succeed. I'm not suggesting that you are completely left to your own devices, but with the UTLD Lakeland 50 there is certainly a need be self sufficient. Kit check is taken very seriously and your kit must contain the full specified list of items. These are basic needs that will see you through, should you get lost, injured or suffer from exhaustion. All very real possibilities that could leave you in a life threatening situation.
The drop out rate is immense in this race. Of the 583 who started the race, exactly 100 resulted in DNF (did not finish). Just being on the start line is a big commitment to training and an achievement in itself.
On race day morning I was not in a great state of mind and feeling a little bit below par. I'd put the previous night's headache and throaty feelings down to anxiety manifesting itself in a weird way. My fellow campers will have observed that I was a little grumpy, for which I apologise. I began the race with 12 other Spartans, most of whom had positioned themselves at the front of the crowd and were ready for the off. Conscious that I wanted to run my own pace, I held back a little.
The first 4 miles were a relatively simple loop around Dalemain estate. I opted to take it nice and easy, not expending too much energy on the small grassy climbs. This loop was merely designed to round us up to 50. Once back to the start line we were ready to begin navigating the remaining 46 miles. Navigation is completely necessary on this race. I'd opted to follow GPS and carried a map as backup. It's entirely possible to become isolated and lose your way, especially once it gets dark.
Right now it was around midday and searingly hot. I had covered my head in a cloth and a cap to try and keep the sun off it. There was no air but I was feeling good and ran on through Pooley Bridge. As we progressed you could feel the terrain becoming ever more technical. With the heat as it was, the first checkpoint, Howtown, couldn't arrive soon enough. We'd only travelled just 10 miles but it felt further. Nutrition immediately went out of the window. I picked up a flap jack and energy drink which were both way too sweet for my palate.
Without more than a few moments stop we headed along what's arguably the most difficult section of the 50 miles. I had buddied up with Paul Chrisp and we headed onwards towards Fusedale, the biggest climb of the day. It's an epic ascent and we could really see the pain on peoples faces. The heat was beginning to take it's toll. People were already weary and unable to carry on. At this point we sadly caught up with our man Paul A, whose legs had deserted him. We wished him well and pressed on. Sounds selfish but knowing Paul as we do, we knew he'd be ok. We left Paul to make the second half of the climb alone, weary and wobbly with another 8 or so miles to Mardale Head. A massive achievement in itself. We'll rib him about the DNF when he's cheered up a bit. Knowing when to stop is part of the game.
Seeing Paul like that put a shiver down my spine. Knowing how hard he had trained and how capable he is was a massive eye opener. We were all susceptible to this heat. I eased off a little and Paul Chrisp drifted ahead. Still feeling good, I trucked on, stopping at every stream to wet the cloth and cap on my head. This was my strategy for keeping the sun and headache at bay.
A couple of miles on, I realised that it hadn't worked. The front of my head was pounding and my legs had just stopped working. I'd been gliding along at a steady pace, certainly not overcooking it, but suddenly, my energy had just switched off. The trek around Haweswater is notoriously sapping but I'd done it before with no problems. I'd also trained in similar heat and got good mileage in. So why now was I so depleted? Just 15 miles in I was absolutely crushed. I could barely get a run going. At that moment in time I could not conceive how I would finish the race.
I desperately needed energy, but the sickly sweet tastes from the last stop meant I just couldn't stomach a thing. I was so close to vomiting but just kept on moving as best as I could for what felt like hours. I knew the Mardale Head checkpoint couldn't be far away when I saw a young lad on crutches, presumably out supporting. It occurred to me that even with his crutches he was moving twice as fast as me. As I descended into the checkpoint, I knew I would see the friendly faces of my club mate hosts, but I had no plan for the next 30 miles.
Sarah and Fay welcomed me in and grabbed me a seat. I was surrounded by a huddle of guys who had already decided to DNF at this point. I was oddly reassured to see so many other people struggling. Consensus was that it was very much hotter than expected. I later discovered that there had been 40 DNFs at this station alone. 30 to heatstroke and 10 to hypothermia (lakeland weather is beyond crazy). For me, quitting was not an option at this stage. I knew that I needed to regroup, so decided to forget any aspirations of a sub 12hr finish and just concentrate on getting round. I figured, if I had to, I could walk and maybe get back in 20hrs. I would still get the metal.
So, strategy: eat lots. Savoury. Cheese and Ham sandwich please Fay. Cup of tea? Lovely. I sank some coke. Too early for a sugar spike really but I just needed it. 2 sachets of emergency diarohlyte. Magic; electrolytes without the crazy party flavours. I committed to a lengthy sit down. I sat there maybe 40 minutes. By this time, every single Spartan had caught me.
I had assumed that Ged, also stood at the checkpoint, was in great shape. He'd passed me on the way round Haweswater looking his usual chipper self. Turns out the sun had also got to him. We decided to truck on to the next checkpoint together, now with aspirations of just finishing. It was really just a case of suck it and see. The climb out of Mardale Head is another massive one. We took it slowly being constantly overtaken but at least progressing.
Once at the top we were feeling much better. Company seemed to have perked us both up and we made our way steadily and cautiously towards the Kentmere checkpoint, 7 miles ahead and briefly meeting Spartan Mark on the way. This is a place of legend where they make fresh fruit smoothies and pasta. As we approached I could feel my strength returning but with a marathon left to go, we decided to rest well. We dibbed in at Kentmere and had another precautionary lengthy stop of about 20 minutes or more. I'd now dropped down to 254 place (compared with 138th at the first checkpoint). It didn't matter, I was now having great fun and was building in confidence. I tucked into some green apple slices which were like an explosion of taste in my mouth. Incredible. The fruit smoothie went down a treat too. I had the wisdom to reject the pasta.
Onwards, and Ged and I were still feeling good, committed to carrying on together whilst it worked. In Ged's words, "go on ahead if you feel like it, I'd do the same to you". You have to run your own pace in a race like this but staying together was absolutely the right thing to do. The journey to Ambleside was as tough as any other section in its own ways (there's only really one flat, smooth bit way further on). At that point we were buoyant and no less than gunning it now. We were picking off runner after runner, most of whom still seemed strong. Finally we were doing something right and I knew at this point that we were back in the game. We ran strong for the next 7 miles chatting and laughing all the way into Ambleside.
The reception in town was phenomenal. The applause and encouragement we received nearly brought a tear to my eye. Into the village hall and another refuel. By this point I was feeling little short of sensational. As we headed in I said to Ged that I was committed to a smash and grab only. Ged was less certain of this strategy but he couldn't resist heading out quickly with me. Nor could Paul Chrisp who we'd found there, still looking good.
The three of us headed out, and immediately bumped into my two companions' wives. I encouraged them all to 'get on with it' so we could hit the trail blazing. The companionship lasted about 10 minutes before I decided it was time to go solo. Only 15 miles to go. Yes, 35 miles was the furthest I'd ever ran but only 15 miles to go. I picked up the pace considerably, constantly chipping away at the runners in front of me. Plenty left in the tank. It was a race now.
Now for the mile or two of completely flat non-technical stuff through Rothay Park. I'd expected to hobble this but I bombed through picking off numerous runners on the way. I reached Skelwith Bridge and took a wrong turn, fortunately correcting myself before going too far wrong. As I approached the lovely Chapel Stile checkpoint (a marquee adorned in fairy lights), I picked out another white shirt. Another Spartan. I caught Nick and headed into the checkpoint. I found him looking a little dejected that he'd done an extra bit somewhere. I joked with Nick that they had to use the defibrillators on me at Mardale Head. He looked worryingly like he'd taken me literally. It had been a long day. I made a quick pit stop and left Nick with some stew.
It starts to get really technical from here on in with plenty of opportunities to get lost over the final 10 miles. With darkness falling fast it was time to get the headtorch out. I kept it in my bag as long as I could. I was following some really strong runners now and only picking them off when I was sure I knew the way. Through some fields and around the bit that I knew could cause me nav problems. Not today. I headed up a climb and past 3 more runners. One of them shouted me. I know that voice, it was Steve. Great to see him but I cracked on immediately, still looking to undo some of the earlier damage.
Over the top and into a really tough technical section. The roadbook says "stay high". We went low. No problem, I'd now got into a small group of guys and we were really dragging each other along. Our leader was taking care of navigation in the pitch dark and now driving rain. We headed up the the unmanned dibber then belted down a steep road descent. Our nav man steamed off ahead. Me and a guy named John struck up a friendship and shredded the miles to Tilberthwaite. This was the final checkpoint and 3.5 miles to go. We troughed some amazing fruit and took on the immediate climb which is little short of immense. In places this is hands and knees climbing and treacherous wet rock.
John and I were still kicking past runners like we wanted to win it. My confidence was just going through the roof and I knew now that it was just one massive technical descent and then home. After the long sapping climb we could see numerous runners descending cautiously. I took all ten of them, springing by them aided by my magnificent poles. 1.5 miles to go now…Then three more runners ahead…
"Nigel is that you?" says the bloke in front."
"No, it's James"
"what Hackos James?"
Yaha, it was Spartan Jon. Looking strong and was quite happy to belt it down the now less technical double track with me like two complete loons. We made a pact to cross the line together rather than race and flew through Coniston. It's never advisable to finish any sort of run with Jon – cheered on by beered up blokes in the pub, we belted through Coniston at 6 minute mile pace as is his trademark. It was a little after midnight. We dibbed in at the finish line and were met by Team GB's Tracy Dean, thunderous applause and friends. A stunning atmosphere.
Over 50 miles I clawed back 127 places to finish, coincidentally =127th with Jon, and still feeling strong. No sub-12 this time, but with the extreme conditions and early hiccup 12:35 has left me happy with my days work. An amazing, definitely to be repeated experience.
Photo credits: Some of these have been nicked off Facebook. Please let me know if you want a credit. Thanks!
Photos from the day are available here